When Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, he was both hailed as a hero and vilified as a traitor. So much attention was paid to the color of his skin that it took the public a little while to realize the scope of his talents. When they did, it only increased the animosity of those who were determined to keep America's national pastime an all-white bastion. Nevertheless, with his quiet dignity and brilliant athleticism, Robinson tore down the walls of bigotry, forever changing the course of American sports.
Baseball's Slow Integration
Although nineteenth-century baseball had fielded all-black teams and even featured a few black players on white teams, twentieth-century major-league baseball had steadfastly been a white-only sport. Black players found an outlet for the sport in various incarnations of the Negro Leagues throughout the first half of the twentieth century. These leagues were widely acclaimed among management, players, and fans of major-league baseball, both for the depth and scope of their talent as well as for the unique style of quick, tough, and athletic baseball that was played. Stars of the Negro Leagues such as catcher and slugger Josh Gibson, center fielder and brilliant base-runner Cool Papa Bell, and the extraordinary pitcher Satchel Paige were known to be as good or better than their white contemporaries such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The only time they could play against these white players, however, was in rare exhibition games.
Although integration was often discussed by fans, owners, and players alike, not until the United States entered World War II in 1941 was there any real thought that it might happen. Major League Baseball's ranks were quickly decimated as players joined the armed services. Baseball's commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was adamant on the subject of integration: as long as he remained commissioner, Major League Baseball would remain all white. Nonetheless, as the war drew to a close and baseball's ranks remained depleted by the war, the subject continued to surface, and the stars of the Negro Leagues dared to hope that one day they would play in the majors.
Commissioner Landis's death, in 1944, brought a new commissioner, Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, whose views on integration were diametrically opposed to those of his predecessor. Chandler said, "I'm for the Four Freedoms. If a black boy can make it in Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball." A secret vote held among club owners revealed, however, that all but one of them opposed integration--that person was Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A God-fearing, teetotaling Christian and a staunch Republican, Rickey had revolutionized Major League Baseball when he created the first farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was now president, part owner, and general manager of the Dodgers, and he firmly believed that integration would not only be good for the country and for baseball but also would mean big business. All he needed was the right man for the job. That man, he ultimately decided, was Jackie Robinson.
Robinson's Early Years
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. When his father abandoned the family, Robinson's strong-willed mother, Mallie, moved her five children west to the predominately all-white town of Pasadena, California, where her half-brother was living. Although poor, Mallie found a way to provide her children with a good home and a solid education. She quickly realized that two of her sons were precocious young athletes. Mack excelled in track and field and would eventually earn a spot on the 1936 Olympic team, placing second to Jesse Owens in Berlin in the 200-meter dash.
Mallie's youngest son, Jackie, preferred team sports along with the jumping events in track and field. In high school he played baseball, basketball, tennis, and football. Following high school, he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he devoted most of his energy to football, at which he excelled. After two years he was heavily recruited by many of the West Coast universities. Robinson chose the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he would become the first player to letter in four sports--football, basketball, track, and baseball.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, so did Robinson. Black servicemen still faced extreme racial discrimination. Despite being a nationally recognized athlete, Robinson was no exception. He was eventually admitted to officer candidate school and obtained a commission as a second lieutenant. He continued to be hounded by racism, however, eventually being subjected to court-martial proceedings based on trumped-up charges. After Robinson was acquitted of the charges against him, he left the army in 1944 with an honorable discharge.
Robinson soon took a job playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. After a year of hitting .387 with the Monarchs, he was invited in 1945 to meet Rickey. In their now-legendary exchange, Rickey told Robinson that he needed not only a great black player to integrate Major League Baseball but also a great man--someone who would be able to stand up to the abuse he was sure to receive and have the guts not to fight back. After a few minutes of consideration, Robinson accepted Rickey's offer.
On October 23, 1945, Rickey announced that the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn's AAA farm team, had signed Robinson to a contract. Robinson spent the next season in Montreal, playing superb baseball, undergoing daily taunts and abuse from fans and players alike, and ultimately leading the Royals to victory in the Minor League World Series.
Success in the Majors
In 1947 Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, despite the opposition of some of the southern players on the team, who initially refused to have an African American teammate--but Rickey and Robinson were ready to make history. On April 15, 1947, 26,623 fans--more than half of whom were African American--turned up to watch Robinson play. Although the play in his first game was anticlimactic, the crowd was electrified, as crowds would be all season everywhere the Dodgers played. Robinson endured verbal abuse from fans and players alike; deliberate spikings from opposing teams; and even death threats aimed at his wife, Rachel, and their young son. Yet Robinson kept his promise to Rickey and never reacted. In the meantime, he brought a brilliant new style of baseball to the major leagues.
As Ken Burns writes:
It was Robinson's style as much as his statistics or his color that made him a star; the fast, scrambling style of play Negro Leaguers called "tricky baseball" has been largely absent from the big leagues since Ty Cobb's day. Robinson brought it back, flustering pitchers by dancing off first base, even stealing home (something he would manage to accomplish nineteen times before he was through).
In just his first year in the majors, Robinson would be voted Rookie of the Year, hitting twelve home runs, stealing twenty-nine bases, and boasting a .297 average. He would also lead the Dodgers to a National League pennant.
With Robinson's success in the majors, the American League soon had their first African American player when the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby and then perhaps the greatest Negro League star of them all, Satchel Paige. More and more great African American players became baseball stars in the ensuing years, from the Giants' Willie Mays to the Cardinals' Curt Flood to the Braves' Hank Aaron. It was Robinson, however, who continued to symbolize the integration of America's national pastime. Nevertheless, Robinson was never content to be a mere figurehead. Rather, he became a team leader and a National League Most Valuable Player who, through his brilliant play, helped transform the once hapless Dodgers into a team of perennial contenders.
In 1955 the Dodgers won their eighth pennant. Seven times before they had entered the World Series as National League champions, and seven times they had lost. Although he was thirty-five years old, Robinson was still a terror on the base paths. His intimidating base running would help lead the Dodgers to their first World Series championship. A little more than a year later, after ten years in the major leagues, Robinson retired.
Life in Retirement
For the next seventeen years, until his death in 1972, Robinson lived an extraordinary yet difficult life. Nominated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his legend as a baseball star continued to grow. He used his fame to bring the public's attention to the African American struggle to end racial discrimination, becoming a staunch and outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. Toward the end of his life, he struggled with illness and suffered the death of his eldest son. Robinson died in 1972, at age fifty-three. Eulogized by athletes, politicians, and presidents, Robinson was hailed as a hero--a courageous man, an outstanding athlete, and a trailblazer for humanity. In 1997 Major League Baseball honored Robinson by retiring his number, 42, forever.
In the early twenty-first century, the legacy of Robinson continues to grow, receiving recognition from organizations as diverse as the U.S. Postal Service and the UCLA Bruins baseball team. Many buildings bear his name, memorial statues and plaques attest to his impact, and on April 15 each year since 2007 major-league players observe Jackie Robinson Day by wearing the number 42 to commemorate the anniversary of Robinson's opening day. In 2005 Robinson was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his lasting influence on American culture.
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Falkner, David. Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, from Baseball to Birmingham. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Kahn, Roger. The Boys of Summer. New York: Harper Perennial, 1971.
Rampersand, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Robinson, Jackie, and Alfred Duckett. I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson. New York: Putnam, 1972.
Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Ward, Geoffrey, and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.